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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ

Studios See Green in Less-Than-Worthy 'SNL' Film Spinoffs

October 01, 1999|CLAUDIA ELLER

Lorne Michaels' "Saturday Night Live" TV series has spawned some of Hollywood's biggest box-office stars over the last 2 1/2 decades, including Mike Myers, Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy, not to mention such alums as Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Billy Crystal and the late John Belushi.

But the popular NBC show has also spawned a number of critically panned movies that have performed modestly at the box office, with the exception of the wildly profitable 1992 hit "Wayne's World."

This begs the question why a major studio such as Paramount Pictures continues to believe that stretching thinly premised TV skits into feature-length comedies is an idea worth financing. Paramount is poised to release yet another "Saturday Night Live"-inspired film--"Superstar," starring Molly Shannon, next Friday.

The answer, according to the brass at Paramount, which is also currently in production on "Ladies' Man," starring Tim Meadows, is simple: The spinoffs are a cottage industry.

But for the 1995 bomb "Stuart Saves His Family," a Harold Ramis comedy starring Al Franken that grossed less than $1 million domestically, Paramount claims the movies have been profitable for the studio.

"It's a great business for us to be in," said Jonathan Dolgen, chairman of Paramount parent Viacom Entertainment Group, despite the films' limited box-office life at home and virtually no theatrical life internationally.

"They're priced right, they do respectable box-office business for what they cost, and they have strong ancillary and shelf-life value," Dolgen said, noting that the films typically do well in the home video rental market, do "disproportionately well" in television and are inexpensive to market.

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On average, titles such as "The Coneheads," which grossed $21 million, or "A Night at the Roxbury" ($30 million) can generate as much as an additional $15 million in domestic video revenue.

Even a total box-office flop such as "Stuart Saves His Family" can bring in substantial video revenue.

Although most of the "SNL" movies have no following overseas and some don't even get released theatrically, studios such as Paramount can earn as much as $7 million for such products from their foreign TV deals because the demand for programming is so high.

Other than "Wayne's World 2" and Universal Pictures' two "Blues Brothers" movies, which each cost $25 million or more, the "SNL" movies cost between $10 million and $17 million to produce.

Moreover, while Paramount used to fully finance the spinoff movies, it now has a deal to co-finance them with NBC through its overall deal with Michaels' SNL Studios. The first two movies to be co-financed under the venture, which was signed a year ago, were "A Night at the Roxbury," which cost $17 million, and "Superstar," a $14-million comedy starring Shannon as the nerdy Catholic girl Mary Katherine Gallagher and co-starring Will Ferrell. (Michaels has had a production deal at Paramount since 1990.)

In addition to their relatively low production costs, the movies are also cost-efficient to market because they have a built-in audience, said Robert Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount's Motion Picture Group.

"The benefit of 'Saturday Night'-inspired movies is that you can identify the audience much more easily, so you don't have to take a broad-reach approach," Friedman said, noting that historically the movies appeal to the 39-and-under crowd, though a movie such as "Superstar" is targeted more to younger females.

Friedman said Paramount also gets promotional support from its "SNL" partner NBC and from Paramount's sister company MTV.

And, he said, "Lorne Michaels is always helpful in the marketing process, and we utilize the 'SNL' shows where possible in buying commercial time."

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Still, if you tallied up the collective profits of all the "Saturday Night" movies released by Paramount and other studios over the years, the figure would probably come nowhere near the total generated by the original "Wayne's World," based on the popular Mike Myers-Dana Carvey routine, which grossed more than $120 million domestically and more than $60 million abroad.

Of course, as Paramount Chairman Sherry Lansing likes to point out, there's always the chance that "you could hit the jackpot and get another 'Wayne's World.' "

Lansing noted another factor that makes the films well worth the effort.

"We're all looking for the next Adam Sandler, so it's a great way to create and build a talent base," Lansing said.

Paramount had been nurturing the career of the late Chris Farley, who starred with David Spade in two of the studio's comedies in the mid-1990s, "Black Sheep" (which grossed $32.4 million domestically) and "Tommy Boy" ($32.6 million), in hopes that he might be the next John Belushi. Unfortunately, the comedic actor died in late 1997 at age 33 before his big-screen career really took off.

Neither of the Farley-Spade comedies was based on "Saturday Night Live" sketches.

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